Springtime 1536, and in taverns and alehouses up and down England they are singing about Henry VIII’s sexual prowess: “the ballad of King Littleprick and his wife the witch.” That’s the national result of the rollicking affair that was at the center of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning historical novel. In that work, Mantel dusted off Thomas Cromwell’s 500-year reputation as Henry’s sinister henchman, to bring a fresh character onto the world stage—a renaissance man who, as Wolf Hall informed us, is “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Only now he has 10 years of power behind him.
Mantel knows how to plunge the reader into the thick of things. At the end of Wolf Hall Henry VIII and his entourage were descending upon his latest romantic intrigue, Jane Seymour. Behind them were the machinations wrought by his chief minister Cromwell, ousting all who opposed the King’s separation from the Catholic Church. There was the sense of a great author at the height of her powers taking a breath and beaming; on the page, a palpable atmosphere of relief and future glory.
That atmosphere dissipates in the first few pages of Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up just two months later, as the court packs from a summer of hunts. Though this second book in a planned trilogy stands alone as a meticulously crafted novel, the first chapter is a seamless continuation of the final page of Wolf Hall; last seen galloping across summer fields, Cromwell returns watching hawks swoop in early autumn.
For the reader, there is a happy familiarity to a sequel. Even the two deaths that dominated Wolf Hall—beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey, and sadistic fanatic Thomas More—hover ghostlike over Cromwell. He calls upon Wolsey for advice, and when he thinks of More, “He doesn’t exactly miss the man. It’s just that sometimes, he forgets he’s dead.” Death is everywhere in the book—Cromwell’s wife and daughters are ever remembered; the discarded Queen Catherine coughs her way to oblivion, forgotten in a country house; the jolly crew of sycophants around the king have no idea their demise is weeks away. Cromwell himself has less than five years before his own beheading.
Until then there is the magic of Cromwell’s mind. Cromwell: the blacksmith’s son from Putney, the soldier from Italian campaigns, risen to be the King’s right hand. Having more than ably established his humanity in Wolf Hall, here Mantel gives him free rein. You want to say that he is Machiavellian, but he’s already read The Prince and deemed it “almost trite ... nothing in it but abstractions.”
One fool he suffers gladly is the king, who calls him “Crumb.” There are shades of Jeeves and Wooster, as the buffoon Henry, romantically hopeless, rages and whines and boasts, and the dark cloaked minister looks on gravely. Henry is made decent only by the reverence with which Cromwell treats him. But there is a limit. At one point, he screams at his chief minister: “I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am a blacksmith's boy.” Cromwell reflects, “You could never be the blacksmith's boy.” Mantel sets the stage through the autumn and winter before that deadly spring. The king grumbles frustrations, as the once-bewitching Anne turns shrewish, her womb not as promising as hoped. Anne is as haughty as ever, but after three years of marriage, she has gone from being so alluring as to inspire a new religion to annoying enough to provoke a beheading, all without changing her affect. Henry alights on wife No. 3, the plain Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall. It is up to Cromwell, once again, to intuit the king’s wishes and realize them. Only this time he doesn’t have eight years, just nine months. A procession of events: We’re at Christmas within 100 pages, then St. George’s Day and on into the breathtaking final third, the grinding death march.
This lends a sense of immediacy, as if after spending years honing Wolf Hall (and decades waiting for the opportunity) Mantel has to get the tale of Anne Boleyn’s downfall out of the way before the next volume. Bring Up the Bodies is still superb, but it is that much more breakneck, the intrigues hurtling forward.
This most shopworn of historical tales has been told in many ways, from the ponderously reverent (A Man for All Seasons) to the salaciously silly (The Tudors) and everywhere in between (see Philippa Gregory and Antonia Frasier). The most successful recent telling is C.J. Sansum’s terrific Matthew Shardlake series, the first two books of which feature Cromwell as the hero’s terrifying boss.
And of course there’s the Holbein portrait, a running gag in Wolf Hall, continued here as Cromwell mutters about being made to look like a murderer (Page 6). The portrait he refers to, now hanging at the Frick, makes him look like Tony Soprano: a fattened, middle-aged tough guy who can meekly bow and scrape to a lord a few months before having him executed.
Cromwell hasn’t just risen in the king’s court, he has been elevated in Mantel’s handling, so that the lowborn son whose coarseness so irked the lords is this novel’s guiding presence. This time around it is Cromwell’s humor, sensitivity, and reason set against the vulgarity of the dignitaries. It is a tidy sleight of hand.